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This Week in Apps: Apple bans party app, China loses 39K iOS games, TikTok births a ‘Ratatousical’

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion total downloads and $120 billion in global consumer spend in 2019. Not including Chinese third-party app stores, iOS and Android users in 2020 downloaded 130 billion apps and spent a record $112 billion. In 2019, people spent three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV.

Due to COVID-19, time spent in apps jumped 25% year-over-year on Android. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

This week (after a week off for the holidays), we’re taking a look at holiday app store spending, how the Chinese gaming licensing rules have impacted the App Store, Apple’s move to ban a party app that could have helped spread COVID, and the collaborative musical created by TikTok users, among other things.

Top Stories

Christmas Day app spending grows 35% year-over-year

Global app spending didn’t seem to be impacted by the pandemic in 2020, according to data from Sensor Tower. The firm reports that consumers spent $407.6 million in apps from the iOS App Store and Google Play on Christmas Day, 34.5% from the $303 million spent in 2019. The majority of the spending was on mobile games, up 27% year-over-year to $295.6 million. Tencent’s Honor of Kings led the games category, while TikTok led non-game apps with $4.7 million in spending on Christmas Day.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

As in prior years, Apple accounted for the majority of the spending, or 68.4% ($278.6M) vs Google Play’s $129M. The spending was led by the U.S., who accounted for ~$130 million of the total

Apple takes a stand on pandemic parties

Apple’s App Store Review guidelines don’t specifically detail how the company will handle apps that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19, but Apple found a way to draw the line when it came to a social app that encouraged unsafe gatherings. This past week, Apple banned the app Vybe Together, which had allowed people to locate “secret” indoor house parties in their area, sometimes including those held in violation of state guidelines.

NYT reporter Taylor Lorenz first called attention to the problem with a tweet. The app had been posting to TikTok to gain attention, but its account has since been removed. Following its removal, the company defended itself by saying that it was only meant for small get-togethers and the founder lamented being “canceled by the liberal media.”

There’s no good defense, really, for the unnecessary and ill-timed promotion of an app that encouraged people from different households to gather, which spreads COVID. And what the founder seemed to not understand, by nature of his recent tweets and statements on the app’s website, is that many cities and states also already prohibit small private gatherings of varying degrees, including those he believes are fine, like small parties in folks’ “own apartments with people in your area.”

The U.S. is coping with 346,000 COVID deaths, and in New York, where the app was promoting NYE parties, 74% of all COVID-19 cases from Sept.-Nov. 2020 have been linked to private gatherings.

The media may have reported on what the app was doing, but ultimately the decision to “cancel” it was Apple’s. And it was the correct one.

Apple removes 39K games from its China App Store.

Apple on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 removed 39,000+ games from China App Store. This was the biggest removal of games in a single day, Reuters reported, citing data from Qimai.

iOS games have long been required to obtain a Chinese gaming license in order to operate in the country, but Apple skirted this rule for years by hosting unlicensed titles even as Android app stores complied. Apple began to enforce the rule in 2020 and gave publishers a Dec. 31, 2020 deadline to obtain the license — a process that can be tedious and time-consuming.

Clearly, a large number of publishers were not able to meet the deadline. Included in the new sweep were Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Identity and NBA 2K20. Qimai says only only 74 of the top 1,500 paid games remained following the removals. To date, Apple purged more than 46,000 titles from the China App Store, the report said.

TikTok births a “Ratatousical”

The TikTok musical version of Ratatouille has become a real thing. The pandemic forced a lot of creative types out of work in 2020, leading them to find new ways to express themselves online. On TikTok, this collective pent-up energy turned into a large-scale collaborative event: a musical version of Disney’s Ratatouille. (Or Ratatousical, as it was nicknamed.) TikTokers composed music, wrote lyrics and dialogue, choreographed dances, designed costumes, sets and more, as they worked together through the app.

Surprisingly, Disney is allowing a charity version of this collaboration to become a real event without any interference or lawsuits. The Ratatouille musical live-streamed on Jan. 1 at 7 p.m. Eastern, and will be available via video-on-demand through Jan. 4, for a minimum $5 donation to The Actors Fund.

The musical itself was lighthearted fun for a younger, Gen Z crowd. It also cleverly incorporated actual TikTok videos that featured the app’s well-known visual effects — like cloning yourself or the flashing colored lights typically associated with TikTok’s “you think you can hurt me” meme, for example. That made it more accessible and familiar to kids who had spent the past year being entertained via the internet.

TikTok users, of course, aren’t the only ones designing, creating and editing productions through remote and collaborative processes in 2020 — Hollywood itself has had to reorient itself for remote work at a much larger scale. TikTok was simply the platform of choice for theater kids looking for something to do.

It will be interesting to see if the TikTok-based collaborative process that birthed this musical ultimately becomes a one-off event that arose from the pandemic’s impacts — including the ability for many creative people to devote time and energy on side projects, for example, due to shuttered productions and stay-at-home orders. Or perhaps in-app collaborations have a real future? Time will tell.

TikTok has already proven it can drive the music charts, fashion trends, and app downloads, so it can probably generate an audience for this production, as well. But the cynic may wonder if such an event would have been as popular and buzzworthy had it been some entirely original production, rather than one based on already popular and beloved Disney IP.  But you may as well watch — it’s not like you have any other plans these days.

Weekly News

Platforms

Gaming

  • Samsung teams up with Epic Games on Apple battle over Fortnite. Samsung and Epic Games worked together on the “Free Fortnite” marketing campaign, which recently involving sending packages to influencers that contained a Free Fortnite bomber jacket and Samsung Galaxy Tab S7. Fortnite was the Samsung Galaxy Store game of the year in 2020, and the store also distributes the Epic Games app which distributes the Fortnite updates. This is an odd move as Epic alleges the app stores leverage their power to engage in monopolistic practices, but this makes it clear that Samsung is offering them distribution. Apple has the right to set its own pricing for its services (and it recently lowered commissions for small businesses, too). But even if Epic Games is not the knight in shining armor one would hope for, its lawsuit could help set precedent. And regulators may still decide one day that Apple can’t dictate rules about how businesses operate outside its app store — meaning, they should have the right to collect their own payments, for example.

Augmented Reality

Image Credits: The New York Times

  • The New York Times gets into AR gaming. The media company has experimented with augmented reality as a way to augment storytelling both in its app and through other efforts on social media. But it has now taken AR into the world of gaming with an AR-enabled crossword puzzle where you swipe to rotate broken pieces floating above the puzzle to find clues.

Social & Photos

Telegram photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • Telegram begins to make money. The messaging app, now nearing 500 million users, will introduce an ad platform for its public one-to-many channels that is “user-friendly” and “respects privacy.” The company says it needs to generate revenue to cover the costs of server and traffic. Telegram earlier abandoned a blockchain token project due to regulatory issues.
  • Mr. Beast announces the second annual “Finger on the App” challenge on Feb. 19. The game doles out $100,000 to whoever can keep their finger on their smartphone the longest, via an app designed for this purpose. Last year, it was a four-way tie after 70 hours, and the prize money was divided. The new app introduces in-app challenges to dissuade cheating. YouTuber Mr. Beast rose to fame for his philanthropic-based viral videos and stunts. He has made sizable donations to people in need and those impacted by the pandemic. But this year, the otherwise silly game has a darker tone as it involves competitors who will likely be in more desperate situations.
  • Bumble uproar over indoor bikini and bra photos. The dating app found itself in the middle of a small controversy this week when a woman who wanted to pose in her bra had her photos taken down. The company said its existing policy prohibits things like shirtless bathroom mirror selfies and indoor photos of people wearing swimsuits and underwear. Bumble’s policies were crafted in response to user data and feedback, but may also help to prevent adult sites from spamming with fake profiles. However, there’s still something weird about an app that markets itself as female-friendly telling a woman to go put some clothes on.
  • ByteDance filings reveal TikTok U.K. business recorded a $119.5 million loss over 2019. The losses were driven by advertising and marketing expenses, indicating the app is still very much in a growth mode.
  • TikTok launches its first personalized annual recap feature. The company “year on TikTok” in-app experience joins other personalized wrap-ups like the Top Nine for Instagram or Spotify’s Wrapped. It also introduces a floating, tappable button to connect users to the experience. This could pave way for other sorts of mini-applications in the future.
  • Clubhouse power users invited to special club. A select group of creators inside the already invite-only audio conversations app have now been given exclusive access to tools and private meetings with Clubhouse leadership and influencers. In one meeting, the creators discussed monetization strategies. The app grew to popularity amid the pandemic as people have been prevented from typical forms of networking, but it’s also struggled with moderation as conversations go off the rails. Today, Clubhouse also hosts many adult topics, as well, which would give the app a 17+ rating if it were actually submitted to the App Store instead of being in a private beta.

Streaming

  • HBO Max’s mobile app set a single-day download record following the release of “Wonder Woman 1984.” During the release weekend (Fri.-Sun.) the app saw 554K downloads, including 244K downloads on Sunday alone, reported Apptopia. The firm estimates the app now has just under 12M mobile users.

Health & Fitness

Government & Policy

Security & Privacy

Funding and M&A

Image Credits: Tappity

Downloads

Yayzy

Image Credits: Yayzy

This U.K. startup’s new app will calculate the environmental impact of what you buy using payment data via Open Banking standards. You you can use this information to adjust your spending or buy offsets in-app in order to become carbon neutral. iOS only.

Waterscope

Image Credits: Iconfactory

The popular app maker Iconfactory released a new app, Waterscope, that is a weather app more specifically designed to provide users with information on water conditions. Creator Craig Hockenberry explains the app is something he largely built for himself, an ocean swimmer often in need of information about the tides, wave heights, water temperature, wind speed, air temperature, forecasts and more. The app could be useful to those who live around the water, whether they’re swimming, fishing, boating or anything else. iOS only.

Run Boggo Run

Image Credits: BuzzFeed

This endless runner is BuzzFeed’s first mobile game, which makes it worth noting if not exactly recommending. The mental health-themed game, inspired by BuzzFeed’s animated series The Land of Boggs, was created by BuzzFeed Animation Studios. In the game, characters try to avoid things like stress monsters and gremlins, which is a humorous take on the anxieties of 2020. However, early user reviews indicate the game’s controls are too difficult and complain the game is too hard to be fun. How stressful! $0.99 on iOS and Android.

Enso

A new meditation game Enso promises to help users relax, meditate or fall asleep faster using gameplay that involves soothing visuals and sounds, composed by A.I. The app consists of 5-minute journeys where users concentrate on a task while guiding their movements and breath to achieve their goals. iOS and Android.

Portal

Image Credits: Portal

Not Facebook’s Portal! This sleep and relaxation-focused app, also called Portal, has been updated with Apple’s new privacy measures in mind. The company announced in December it will not collect user data from its app, and will now no longer use any in-app analytics tracking. The app also never required a login or collected personal information, and didn’t include third-party ads and ad trackers.

That’s resulted in an App Store rare find:

How refreshing.

The Portal app is a free download and offers a $35 per year membership for those who want access to the full content library.

TikTok stars got a judge to block Trump’s TikTok ban

TikTok has won another battle in its fight against the Trump administration’s ban of its video-sharing app in the U.S. — or, more accurately in this case, the TikTok community won a battle. On Friday, a federal judge in Pennsylvania issued an injunction that blocked the restrictions that would have otherwise blocked TikTok from operating in the U.S. on November 12.

This particular lawsuit was not led by TikTok itself, but rather a group of TikTok creators who use the app to engage with their million-plus followers.

According to the court documents, plaintiff Douglas Marland has 2.7 million followers on the app; Alec Chambers has 1.8 million followers; and Cosette Rinab has 2.3 million followers. The creators argued — successfully as it turns out — that they would lose access to their followers in the event of a ban, as well as the “professional opportunities afforded by TikTok.” In other words, they’d lose their brand sponsorships — meaning, their income.

This is not the first time that the U.S. courts have sided with TikTok to block the Trump administration’s proposed ban over the Chinese-owned video sharing app. Last month, a D.C. judge blocked the ban that would have removed the app from being listed in U.S. app stores run by Apple and Google.

That ruling had not, however, stopped the November 12 ban that would have blocked companies from providing internet hosting services that would have allowed TikTok to continue to operate in the U.S.

The Trump administration had moved to block the TikTok app from operating in the U.S. due to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, claiming it was a national security threat. The core argument from the judge in this ruling was the “Government’s own descriptions of the national security threat posed by the TikTok app are phrased in the hypothetical.”

That hypothetical risk was unable to be stated by the government, the judge argued, to be such a risk that it outweighed the public interest. The interest, in this case, was the more than 100 million users of TikTok and the creators like Marland, Chambers and Rinab that utilized it to spread “informational materials,” which allowed the judge to rule that the ban would shut down a platform for expressive activity.

“We are deeply moved by the outpouring of support from our creators, who have worked to protect their rights to expression, their careers, and to help small businesses, particularly during the pandemic,” said Vanessa Pappas, Interim Global Head of TikTok, in a statement. “We stand behind our community as they share their voices, and we are committed to continuing to provide a home for them to do so,” she added.

The TikTok community coming to the rescue on this one aspect of the overall TikTok picture just elevates this whole story. Though the company has been relatively quiet through this whole process, Pappas has thanked the community several times for its outpouring of support. Though there were some initial waves of “grief” on the app with creators frantically recommending people follow them on other platforms, that has morphed over time into more of a “let’s band together” vibe. This activity coalesced around a big swell in voting advocacy on the platform, where many creators are too young to actually participate but view voting messaging as their way to participate.

TikTok has remained active in the product department through the whole mess, shipping elections guides and trying to ban QAnon conspiracy spread, even as Pakistan banned and then un-banned the app.

 

 

 

PicsArt hits 130 million MAUs as Chinese flock to its photo editing app

If you’re like me, who isn’t big on social media, you’d think that the image filters that come inside most apps will do the job. But for many others, especially the younger crowd, making their photos stand out is a huge deal.

The demand is big enough that PicsArt, a rival to filtering companies VSCO and Snapseed, recently hit 130 million monthly active users worldwide, roughly a year after it amassed 100 million MAUs. Like VSCO, PicsArt now offers video overlays though images are still its focus.

Nearly 80 percent of PicsArt’s users are under the age of 35 and those under 18 are driving most of its growth. The “Gen Z” (the generation after millennials) users aren’t obsessed with the next big, big thing. Rather, they pride themselves on having niche interests, be it K-pop, celebrities, anime, sci-fi or space science, topics that come in the form of filters, effects, stickers and GIFs in PicsArt’s content library.

“PicsArt is helping to drive a trend I call visual storytelling. There’s a generation of young people who communicate through memes, short-form videos, images and stickers, and they rarely use words,” Tammy Nam, who joined PicsArt as its chief operating officer in July, told TechCrunch in an interview.

PicsArt has so far raised $45 million, according to data collected by Crunchbase. It picked up $20 million from a Series B round in 2016 to grow its Asia focus and told TechCrunch that it’s “actively considering fundraising to fuel [its] rapid growth even more.”

picsart

PicsArt wants to help users stand out on social media, for instance, by virtually applying this rainbow makeup look on them. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

The app doubles as a social platform, although the use case is much smaller compared to the size of Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media products. About 40 percent of PicsArt’s users post on the app, putting it in a unique position where it competes with the social media juggernauts on one hand, and serving as a platform-agnostic app to facilitate content creation for its rivals on the other.

What separates PicsArt from the giants, according to Nam, is that people who do share there tend to be content creators rather than passive consumers.

“On TikTok and Instagram, the majority of the people there are consumers. Almost 100 percent of the people on PicsArt are creating or editing something. For many users, coming on PicsArt is a built-in habit. They come in every week, and find the editing process Zen-like and peaceful.”

Trending in China

Most of PicsArt’s users live in the United States, but the app owes much of its recent success to China, its fastest growing market with more than 15 million MAUs. The regional growth, which has been 10-30 percent month-over-month recently, appears more remarkable when factoring in PicsArt’s zero user acquisition expense in a crowded market where pay-to-play is a norm for emerging startups.

“Many larger companies [in China] are spending a lot of money on advertising to gain market share. PicsArt has done zero paid marketing in China,” noted Nam.

Screenshot: TikTok-related stickers from PicsArt’s library

When people catch sight of an impressive image filtering effect online, many will inquire about the toolset behind it. Chinese users find out about the Armenian startup from photos and videos hashtagged #PicsArt, not different from how VSCO gets discovered from #vscocam on Instagram. It’s through such word of mouth that PicsArt broke into China, where users flocked to its Avengers-inspired disappearing superhero effect last May when the film was screening. China is now the company’s second largest market by revenue after the U.S.

Screenshot: PicsArts lets users easily apply the Avengers dispersion effect to their own photos

A hurdle that all media apps see in China is the country’s opaque guidelines on digital content. Companies in the business of disseminating information, from WeChat to TikTok, hire armies of content moderators to root out what the government deems inappropriate or illegal. PicsArt says it uses artificial intelligence to sterilize content and keeps a global moderator team that also keeps an eye on its China content.

Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, PicsArt has placed its research and development center in Armenia, home to founder Hovhannes Avoyan. This gives the startup access to much cheaper engineering talents in the country and neighboring Russia compared to what it can hire in the U.S. To date, 70 percent of the company’s 360 employees are working in engineering and product development (50 percent of whom are female), an investment it believes helps keep its creative tools up to date.

Most of PicsArt’s features are free to use, but the firm has also looked into getting paid. It rolled out a premium program last March that gives users more sophisticated functions and exclusive content. This segment has already leapfrogged advertising to be PicsArt’s largest revenue source, although in China, its budding market, paid subscriptions have been slow to come.

picsart 1

PicsArt lets users do all sorts of creative work, including virtually posing with their idol. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

“In China, people don’t want to pay because they don’t believe in the products. But if they understand your value, they are willing to pay, for example, they pay a lot for mobile games,” said Jennifer Liu, PicsArt China’s country manager.

And Nam is positive that Chinese users will come to appreciate the app’s value. “In order for this new generation to create really differentiated content, become influencers, or be more relevant on social media, they have to do edit their content. It’s just a natural way for them to do that.”